Diplomatist Special Report: West Asia - North Africa 2018 WANA 2018 - Page 21

SPECIAL REPORT a Syrian-led peace initiative and reiterated its opposition to external military intervention. Although Syrian offi cials have reportedly urged India to play a proactive diplomatic role, Delhi has declined to play a mediatory role. At the same time, however, India has sought to maintain its traditionally cordial relationship with the government in Damascus. Offi cial communications have remained open — including the embassies in Delhi and Damascus throughout the confl ict. On a number of occasions since the confl ict erupted, Syrian offi cials have been received in Delhi, including last January’s visit by Deputy Prime Minister (and Foreign Minister) Walid Muallem during which he requested humanitarian assistance in the form of medical and food supplies to ease the suffering of Syrian citizens. In addition, India has extended a $25 million line of credit to Syria for the rehabilitation and modernization of the Hama Iron & Steel Plant and $100 million line of credit to partially fi nance the extension of the Tishreen Power Plant. In 2014, at the peak of violence, India sent a business delegation led by Assocham to Syria. Therefore, Indian has remained engaged with Damascus on both the diplomatic and the economic fronts. Since the emergence of the ISIS in 2014 and, particularly after the group’s subsequent explicitly stated threat to expand its terror campaign into India, Delhi has sought greater policy convergence with the Syrian regime. India has long been grappling with terrorist activities of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), and Hizbul Mujahideen, among others. The threat from ISIS gained prominence following the July 2016 terror attack in Dhaka, which was claimed by Islamic State. The National Intelligence Agency (NIA), Anti-Terrorist Squad (ATS), and state police forces reportedly arrested over 50 ISIS supporters/sympathizers between late 2015 and mid-2016. In addition, there is heightened concern that youth could fall prey to ISIS “cyber radicalization.” While the extent of ISIS’ actual reach in India is still debated, the threat posed by the globalization of terror networks through cyber radicalization and “lone wolf attacks” cannot be ignored. Given these concerns, Syria has acquired new importance in India’s policy towards West Asia. The Minister of State for External Affairs M. J. Akbar visited Syria in August 2016 and met with President Assad. This is the fi rst major outreach since the confl ict began. According to Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA), counterterrorism and partnering in Syrian reconstruction were the two main aspects that Minister of State for External Affairs emphasized during his visit to Syria. It is worth noting that the meeting marked a sharp departure from the U.S. position on Syria, which has favoured the removal of the Assad regime. During the visit, the Syrian President expressed appreciation for India’s “objective” position on the confl ict and invited New Delhi to play a greater The Minister of State for External Affairs M. J. Akbar visited Syria in August 2016 and met with President Assad. This is the fi rst major outreach since the confl ict began. role in the reconstruction of the war-torn country. Syria at present represents a major foreign policy dilemma for India. India’s policy of non-intervention in countries’ internal affairs has paid dividends till now, eliciting cooperation from those regimes to whose attention it has brought its concerns. And India’s conviction that external military interventions are counterproductive is time-tested. However, the need for peace and stability in Syria has become a global concern, requiring the collective efforts of all major players and stakeholders. Whereas it is prudent for India to decline to engage in a foreign military intervention, it is imprudent to shy away from playing a role in building international support for peace initiatives. India, with the advantage of having cordial relations with all of the stakeholders in the Syrian confl ict — Syria, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Britain, the U.S. and the European countries — has the potential to play a signifi cant constructive role in advancing multilateral peace initiatives. Conclusion India has vital economic and strategic stakes in West Asia’s. Accordingly, India’s foreign policy towards the region is acquiring strategic dimensions. India’s relations with Syria throughout the confl ict have been cordial and closely consistent with its overall policy of non-intervention. However, Syria has become the nerve centre of instability and terrorism, thereby placing Indian interests at risk. Therefore, it is crucial that Syria is locate d more centrally in India’s strategic calculations regarding the region. And it is both possible and highly desirable that India play a more proactive role in peace initiatives in Syria. *The author is a Documentation Offi cer at Gulf Studies Program, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi West Asia-North Africa• 21